Tal­ent, lust, and dystopian IKEA in opera’s con­tem­po­rary Hän­del A let­ter from Talk Black to fu­ture us Play­ing with per­spec­tive and per­cep­tions of re­al­ity Ce­cile Emeke uses video sto­ry­telling to em­power Black di­as­pora Dress­ing with sus­tain­abil­ity and e

The McGill Daily - - Table Of Contents - Carly Gor­don Cul­ture Writer

Black-clad state po­lice, wear­ing ski masks and bran­dish­ing night­sticks, ap­pre­hend an anti-es­tab­lish­ment graf­fiti artist. It’s not ex­actly how you might ex­pect the open­ing scene of an 18th cen­tury opera to un­fold, but Opera Mcgill’s March 19 per­for­mance of Rodelinda de­fied ex­pec­ta­tions from its very first note to its last, though not al­ways in a good way.

Rodelinda, com­posed in 1719 by Ge­org Friedrich Hän­del, is a rarely per­formed spec­ta­cle of a con­vo­luted plot with larger-than-life char­ac­ters. It’s loosely based on the events sur­round­ing the usurpa­tion and at­tempted as­sas­si­na­tion of Perc­tarit, king of the Lom­bards, in the 7th cen­tury. Since it’s hard to con­fine a me­dieval mil­i­tary coup to three hours of the­atri­cal stag­ing, Hän­del’s work fo­cuses in­stead on the twisted yet de­cid­edly hu­man re­la­tion­ships be­tween the par­ties in­volved.

Stage di­rec­tor Patrick Hansen was stumped by Rodelinda’s rel­a­tive ob­scu­rity. In the di­rec­tor’s notes, Hansen wrote, “[ Rodelinda] is not as well known in North Amer­ica as it should be. [...] I’m not sure why, as the themes and char­ac­ters present in this opera are time­less and cur­rently re­flected in HBO’S Game of Thrones tele­vi­sion series.” He cites vi­o­lence, lust, ob­ses­sion, and royal in­trigue as com­mon to both works. It should be noted, how­ever, that Rodelinda is sadly de­void of dragons.

Through­out the pro­duc­tion, ta­lented opera stu­dents from Mcgill’s Schulich School of Mu­sic dom­i­nated the chal­leng­ing, or­nate vo­cal lines for which Baroque-era mu­sic is known. Stel­lar voices and act­ing skills, even in the con­text of the sto­ry­line’s melo­drama, amounted to an im­pres­sive col­lec­tive per­for­mance. Mean­while, an orches­tra hid­den in the pit be­neath the stage aced the trills and flour­ishes of Hän­del’s ca­per­ing score.

The evening’s stand­out was coun­tertenor Ni­cholas Burns. Hail­ing from Bri­tish Columbia, the 21-year-old took on the lead role of King Ber­tarido with im­pec­ca­ble vo­cals and an en­thralling stage pres­ence. In Rodelinda, Ber­tarido has been de­posed by the tyran­ni­cal Gri­moaldo and pre­sumed dead by his son Flavio and wife Rodelinda. But Burns’s ar­rival on stage mid­way through the first act made it ap­par­ent that the king, in fact, lives on.

Burns chan­nelled the re­gal poise of a monarch and the pained ur­gency of a fa­ther and hus­band sep­a­rated from those he loves, all en­cap­su­lated by a skill­ful voice rarely heard in a per­former so young. Of­ten, coun­tertenor roles will be re­as­signed as “pants roles,” or male roles played by a low­er­voiced wo­man, in ab­sence of a male singer suf­fi­ciently ca­pa­ble in the high vo­cal range de­manded of coun­tertenors. Luck­ily for Opera Mcgill, Burns was more than ca­pa­ble, with a voice that could com­pete with the pros.

So­prano Lau­ren Woods in the role of Rodelinda was an­other high­light, de­pict­ing equal parts majesty and woe with a voice at once ag­ile and nu­anced. Woods per­formed with a grip­ping and el­e­gant in­ten­sity, cap­tur­ing the epony­mous queen’s acts of mourn­ing, loy­alty, and de­fi­ance. Woods made her re­gal en­trance in the first scene, wear­ing a swirling pink crown that would have made Effie Trin­ket jeal­ous.

De­spite the stu­dent per­form­ers’ dis­play of ut­most pro­fes­sion­al­ism, the ac­tual pro­fes­sional stage de­sign­ers failed to hit the mark, re­sult­ing in a pro­duc­tion that was vis­ually in­ter­est­ing, but the­mat­i­cally half-baked.

The opera ap­peared to be set in­side a dystopian Ikea: bare metal scaf­fold­ing, grey mesh col­umns, and, oddly, a chair sus­pended up­side-down from the ceil­ing. The set amounted to an aes­thetic that per- haps can best be de­scribed as “ware­house chic.” In his di­rec­tor’s notes, Hansen ex­plained that he hoped “to cre­ate a min­i­mal­ist ex­pres­sion” in which to frame the char­ac­ters and their in­ter­ac­tions, ab­stract­ing the plot to its most ba­sic emo­tional core.

The look was, if noth­ing else, cool. The set was sleek and flex­i­ble, with movable pieces meant to sig­nify scene tran­si­tions. But some con­spic­u­ous de­sign flaws un­der­cut the set’s suc­cess: as the orches­tra struck its open­ing notes, out­ward-fac­ing lights at the back of the stage nearly blinded the first sev­eral rows of au­di­ence mem­bers, while char­ac­ters duck­ing around the mesh col­umns dis­ap­peared com­pletely, though un­in­ten­tion­ally, from the au­di­ence’s view.

And that chair – oh, that up­side­down chair. Char­ac­ters would pe­ri­od­i­cally stand off to the side of the stage and reach long­ingly toward the chair with out­stretched arms. The air­borne fur­ni­ture, hang­ing awk­wardly above stage left, was overtly sym­bolic of Ber­tarido’s con­tested throne, and more gen­er­ally, of power and con­trol. Pro tip: if your sym­bol­ism is overt, it’s not do­ing its job.

Through­out the pro­duc­tion, bizarre cur­rents of vi­o­lent sex­u­al­ity came into fo­cus. Lust and de­sire are un­ques­tion­ably cen­tral to the opera’s plot, but when a venge­ful aria sung by King Ber­tarido’s sis­ter Eduige (chill­ingly and charm­ingly por­trayed by mezzo-so­prano Emma Bo­nanno) turned into a chore­ographed BDSM os­ten­ta­tion along­side the schem­ing Duke Garib­aldo (a role bril­liantly sung by bari­tone Jean-philippe Mc- Clish), the ef­fect was more com­i­cal than in­tense.

The sex­ual bent would have been more com­pelling had it ex­am­ined or thwarted gen­der roles. Though the opera fea­tures two pow­er­ful women, Queen Rodelinda and her sis­ter-in­law Eduige, it fails the Bechdel Test, the set of cri­te­ria, usu­ally ap­plied to film and tele­vi­sion, that eval­u­ates how women are rep­re­sented in me­dia. The test asks whether a given work has at least two fe­male char­ac­ters who talk to each other about a topic other than any of the male char­ac­ters. (For some per­spec­tive, Jes­sica Jones passes the test, while Dare­devil falls short).

Rodelinda and Eduige score on the first and sec­ond cri­te­ria, but their sole in­ter­ac­tion is about, you guessed it, men. This is to be ex­pected of an opera writ­ten in the 18th cen­tury, but Opera Mcgill’s ab­stracted set and stag­ing choices at first seemed to point toward a fresh per­spec­tive. Yet, even as Eduige takes on the dom­i­neer­ing role in her BDSM aria early in the opera, this stag­ing doesn’t carry through: by the fi­nal scene, she docilely agrees to wed Gri­moaldo. Here, Hansen had the op­por­tu­nity to stage Eduige’s be­trothal through a lens of em­pow­er­ment and agency, as a grab for monar­chi­cal power or a re­turn to the ear­lier mo­tif of in­ter­twined dom­i­nance and de­sire. In­stead, Eduige’s pre­vi­ous dis­play of pas­sion fiz­zles in favour of a con­ven­tional happy end­ing.

Even if these com­po­nents had come to­gether more per­sua­sively, the fact re­mains that such a mod­ern­ized take is hardly orig­i­nal. Opera di­rec­tors are con­stantly reimag­in­ing and rein­ter­pret­ing their reper­toire, search­ing for in­no­va­tive set­tings and un­ex­plored nu­ances to rein­vig­o­rate a cen­turies-old genre. The ques­tion that di­rec­tors must ask them­selves is whether their up­dated ver­sion presents the opera in a way that doesn’t sim­ply trans­plant the orig­i­nal, but trans­forms it. Does the stag­ing in­ter­ro­gate the opera’s themes, or sim­ply reroute them? Opera Mcgill’s vi­sion for Rodelinda was on the cusp of achiev­ing this in­ter­pre­tive meta­mor­pho­sis, but fell short on mul­ti­ple counts.

For­tu­nately, sub­lime per­for­mances shone where the stag­ing fal­tered, with the Schulich School of Mu­sic’s bril­liant stu­dents lend­ing vi­vac­ity and pas­sion to this fi­nal pro­duc­tion of Opera Mcgill’s 2015-16 sea­son.

The sex­ual bent would have been more com­pelling had it ex­am­ined or thwarted gen­der roles.

Stel­lar voices and act­ing skills, even in the con­text of the sto­ry­line’s melo­drama, amounted to an im­pres­sive col­lec­tive per­for­mance.

King Ber­tarido “re­turns from the dead.” Courtesy of Tam Lan Truong

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